Andy Serkis: MoCap God

Motion capture started out in the medical industry as a tool for studying joint-related illnesses and looking at knee and ankle movements for medical purposes. It was then later used in video games, as a way to add realism to character movements. It has since evolved into a method that is not just used for capturing movement any more, but also emotion and performance. As a film-making technique it is improving rapidly thanks to the evolution of Performance Capture technology. The poster boy of this revolutionary film-making process, Andy Serkis, has been at it for twelve years now and has even founded his very own studio with producer John Cavendish called the ‘Imaginarium’.

The Imaginarium, a studio that hopes to place Britain at the forefront of this cinematic revolution as “a one-stop shop for digital characters”.

The Imaginarium, a studio that hopes to place Britain at the forefront of this cinematic revolution as “a one-stop shop for digital characters”.

The company is his creative laboratory at Ealing Studios in the UK, where he and his team have their own theatrical space where they are free to tinker away like mad scientists and further push the boundaries of the medium. As the Imaginarium develops the film industry is only one part of what they’re doing. Their intention is to use this alchemy of art and science to tell engaging stories in the fields of theatre and video games as well.

Ever the evangelist for performance capture, Serkis seeks to change the notion that the practice is merely an acting genre, but rather another way to record an actor’s movement and expression to form the heart of a digital character – to capture their performance.  According to Serkis, if he were to approach a live action character, sans MoCap, he wouldn’t approach the role any differently. Upon witnessing the magnificent Mocap performances in Dawn of The Planet of the Apes, it became clear to me that things have come a long way since Gollum in 2001′s Lord of The Rings. The tortured Tolkien character was cinema’s first photo-realistic performance capture creation.


Andy is the celebrity of this medium at the moment and the reality for many of its performers is anonymity and a daily rate.  Take for example Jason Cope, who played all of the aliens in District 9 and Woody Schultz; who played hundreds of Navi in Avatar. In fact, there were only nine motion capture performers who played the thousands of Navi in Avatar for a daily fee.

16d05692538c3f0274c073f0772f5eddNow that this method of interactive storytelling and characterisation has the technology to support it, he and his team have lined up a bevvy of very interesting titles to start work on, including film adaptations of Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book (which he’ll also be directing) and George Orwell’s Animal Farm. Less celebrated are his efforts at second unit directing (which often involves shooting background or filming action sequences), something he’s gotten to do quite a bit of for Peter Jackson on The Hobbit. The Jungle Book would be the first feature directing gig for Serkis — although the actor was a second unit director on Peter Jackson’s two Hobbit movies, including the barrel chase scene in The Desolation of Smaug.

Other highlights in Andy’s  fascinating career include:

king-kong-1518328091Bringing King Kong to the screen again with Peter Jackson, hot on the heels of their huge success with The Lord of The Rings trilogy. “To create Kong’s weight, I had big weight bags on my arms to make his arms like wrecking balls. And I had weights on my legs to get the scale of movement correct, and a big harness with weights around my waist. It was quite an exhausting job. The facial motion capture began to come into existence at that point. We worked with 3D markers; I had about 132 markers all over my face and my eyelids. Kong was a real marriage of physical and facial capture. I had a two-month capture session after principal photography ended, which was just me, and we did all of Kong’s movements on that stage.”

captain-haddock-in-his-cups-720x404Breathing new life into Ceaser the Ape for the hit reboot to The Planet of the Apes franchise as well as its sequel. To play Caesar in Apes, and for Captain Haddock in The Adventures of Tintin, the helmet rigs created for Avatar were used. Whereas before they were only able to film in small volumes, the addition of facial markers painted on and helmets with cameras on a boom recording the face – the entire crew plus big set elements can fit on the motion-capture stage and actors can go anywhere. Apes was huge, in terms of live-action coverage. There were massive amounts of shooting that took place on live-action sets and in outside locations, with lots of people in suits. For outside shoots they wore suits with LED markers, which could have interfered with the performance-capture cameras’ ability to receive information from the markers on their suits, but instead worked out really well.

Commenting on how the technology has evolved over time and how it was used in the new Dawn of The Planet of The Apes movie, Serkis says: “That’s another one of the breakthroughs—having a very reliable, real-time playback that you can use to choreograph. It’s like looking in a magic mirror, working out how your performance is going to read physically, and then adjusting. The digital puppet can be calibrated to your movements, so you’re finding a happy medium between what you’re doing as a performer and as an actor and what the puppet is capable of.”

Andy Serkis Talks Motion-Capture Work in ‘Star Wars: Episode VII. Speaking with Sci-Fi Now (via SlashFilm). The actor said:

“I grew up with Star Wars and was a massive fan of the original films. I never imagined in a million years that I’d be engaging with this. It’s just come about so organically. The Imaginarium is providing all of the performance characters, and I myself am playing a character in it.”

Performance Capture is now finally at a place where it’s perceived as a way of recording an actor’s performance and people treat it so, rather than trying to service the animation of a visual effect. Andy says: “There’s obviously a huge difference. Directors want to use the performance, so they’re loyal to an actor’s performance more and more. When you come away from something like Apes or Tintin, people go, “Oh, you did the voice for that character?” No, no, no—I played that character.”

Dawn of The Planet of The Apes opens in cinemas Nationwide on July the 11th 2014